The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 5

Dronkhar pushed through the heavy curtain separating the inside of the tavern from the rest of the world and tromped to the bar. He earned questioning looks from the few villagers already muddling their wits. He reached into his belt pouch and flipped a shining coin onto the bar. “That should be enough for a tankard of your strongest. Enough to keep it coming as well.”

The barman picked the coin up with surprise. Dronkhar gathered that the village didn’t often see gold coinage. It was a bit much to spend even for the considerable amount of liquor he could imbibe, but the impatience that had been growing inside wouldn’t brook any time for haggling. The barkeep brought out a sizeable cup, near to overflowing, and slid it across to Dronkhar’s waiting hand.

Wiping his beard after a large swig, Dronkhar noticed another figure tucked into a shadowed corner of the room. Grabbing his drink, he crossed the room toward it. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out another sohntar, a Deepdelver from the looks of him. Perhaps this was his chance to get some answers.

The sohntar eyed him warily as he sat down at the table. “I’d not thought to see a Bloodfire warrior again in my lifetime.” He sniffed the air disdainfully. “You have the smell of the Baelrock on you though.”

Dronkhar grimaced at the comment and took another drink. “Desperate work after the breaking of the clan. Though after that stint, even this swill tastes good by comparison.” He noted the large satchel resting next to the other sohntar. “Have times grown so tough that the Delvers are forced to trade with the human realms directly?”

A scowl crossed the Delver’s face. “The fall of your clan disturbed the politics of the Arbiters and disrupted the bonds between all sohntar. With fewer folk to purchase their weapons, the Earthsmiths had less need to purchase our ores, forcing me to come to places like these.” His gaze wandered around the bar as a sneer crossed his lips. “Word has been spreading that the Baelrock have begun some machinations of their own as well. What do you know of that?”

Pausing to size up the other sohntar, Dronkhar chose his words carefully. “I know only that they’d begun mining a new type of ore before I… left. Given that it was something I’d not seen before, I wondered if they might have consulted with the Delvers before they began.”

The sohntar’s sneer quickly became a grimace. “We’d not have willingly worked with the Baelrock even before they were driven out. Since then, the rumors of their behavior have grown even darker. Mark my words, if they have sought out some new metal, it is not for any good purpose.”

Dronkhar was about to respond when the curtain to the outside was thrust open, and a familiar queferi dashed into the room, terror clean to see on her face.

Something was wrong.

Ilinnia spotted Dronkhar and nearly knocked over a chair as she ran to him. Before she could say anything, a wave of revulsion washed over her features. She looked sick and when he gripped her arm, she tried to pull away.

“It’s me, girl,” Dronkhar snapped. “What in the fires of earth is going on?”

Ilinnia opened her eyes. “Something’s coming,” she gasped.

“What’s coming?”

“I don’t know!” Her voice carried an edge of panic. “I was at the oask, and I felt the world scream. The Ai sent me a warning. There is a darkness killing everything in its path. It’s coming here!”

Every gaze in the tavern was on her now. Whispers and mutters swirled about the room, some fearful, others mocking. The Delver glanced between her and Dronkhar, his hand inching toward a long knife at his belt.

Dronkhar felt his barely contained frustration building into rage.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know any—”

“Hush, girl, I’m trying to think!”

Ilinnia snapped her mouth closed and gave a suppressed whimper.

Finally, Dronkhar pulled her away to a corner, then pointed at the other sohntar. “You. Stay with her,” he commanded, then loosened an axe. “I’m going for a look outside.”

The Delver looked startled but nodded. Dronkhar strode across the room and shoved the curtain aside.

On stepping outside, he was immediately assaulted by the acrid scent of smoke and distant cries for help. The nearby villagers, lacking his trained senses, hadn’t yet realized the danger that was upon them.

Grabbing the nearest local, Dronkhar pointed at the faint wisps becoming visible above the tree line. “This village is under attack. Get a town elder, grand high mucky-muck or whoever you need to grab, and start evacuating. Now!”

Dronkhar watched as the villager scurried off, shouting at the top of his lungs. He shook his head and drew his axes.

All right. Let’s see what the hells are sending this way.

He sprinted through the emptying streets toward the smell of smoke. The screams that pierced the air before had given way to an ominous silence. Ahead, the sounds of combat broke the eerie calm. He leaned around the corner of a small house and stared at the sight before him.

A metallic figure stood, like a living human statue made of earth, bronze and shadow. It leaned to the ground and crushed the skull of a struggling peasant. Behind the figure, several similar creatures tore a house apart bare-handed. The first statue raised its head, and Dronkhar felt its eyeless stare pierce his hiding place. A tremor of dread washed over him, but he pushed it aside. Whatever these things were, they needed to be destroyed. He stepped out from behind the house and braced for an attack.

The creature didn’t bother with subtlety or tactics. It merely charged at him, arms open wide as if to grab him. Dronkhar ducked to the side and lashed out with his axe, aiming for where a man’s hamstring would have been. The axe bounced harmlessly off the metal surface, leaving no trace it had even touched his opponent.

The statue looked confused as to how its prey had eluded it. It regained its focus quickly, however, and turned again to face Dronkhar. This time it swung its fist at him and launched into a fluid series of attacks when the first punch failed to connect.

Though it possessed significant strength, Dronkhar easily avoided its attacks. He countered whenever possible, but again, his axe failed to find purchase against his metallic foe. He sensed the other creatures approaching behind him and knew that he would be hard pressed to fight them all.

Something was going to give.

A scream startled Dronkhar enough that the hulking statue knocked his weapon aside and nearly landed a follow up blow. He ducked hastily and rolled clear. Bracing himself, he spared a glance behind him and spotted Ilinnia on the ground.

His enemies didn’t even spare him time for a muttered curse. The first creature charged again, with another close behind. Dronkhar sidestepped the first and swung his axe at the knee of the second. Instead of bouncing away, the weapon’s edge scored a mark on the metal skin—a graze, but with enough force behind the blow to lock the joint. The statue tumbled forward while he jumped clear.

Two more metal creatures turned toward the queferi. Dronkhar ran to assist and tackled one of the statues, knocking it into the rubble of a collapsed house. His skin burned where it had touched the metal creature. He struggled to his feet, but a hand reached out of the debris and grasped his beard painfully. Instinctively he chopped at it with his axe.

Metal rent against metal and tore a slight gash, from which a sulphurous liquid oozed. The hand released its grip. Dronkhar ripped his axe free and stumbled toward the others. The statue staggered to its feet, bewildered.

Dronkhar didn’t waste the opportunity. He hauled Ilinnia off the ground and gave a grunt of surprise as the Deepdelver poked his head out from behind cover. “Fall back!” Dronkhar shouted.

They ran past several lanes and ducked behind an abandoned blacksmith’s workshop. The queferi was shaking and panting but seemed to have her wits again. The Deepdelver was staring intently, almost mesmerized, at the muck lining Dronkhar’s axe-head.

“What in the Arbiter’s arm-pit are you two doing here?” he demanded, his gaze divided between glaring at the two figures and watching for signs of the enemy.

The Delver gave him a sheepish shrug. “Bloodfires don’t stir easily, and she sent you running with a few scared words. She dashed out after you, and I couldn’t just sit back and leave the trouble to the both of you.”

Dronkhar rolled his eyes and forced his nerves to calm. “What about these statue bastards? None of my swings could as much as nick the bloody things, but when you two showed up their armor seemed to soften.”

“Don’t look at me, I’m just a miner,” the Deepdelver said.

“I-I think…” Ilinnia took a ragged breath and scrubbed her dirty cheeks. “I think it was me.”

“What did you do?” Dronkhar said.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. Being that close to them… it was more pain than I’ve ever felt. Maybe I was having a similar effect on them?”

Dronkhar stared critically at her flushed face and sighed. “That’s not going to be much help. You don’t look like you’d last long enough to bring even one of them down.”

“No,” she murmured, looking thoughtful. “But there is one possibility. Let me see this.” She took hold of his axe, careful not to touch the reeking liquid on the weapon’s edge. “An accomplished Maion can imbue objects with spiritual power. I can try to pour my essence into this.”

Something crashed not far from their hiding place, and a fresh wave of screams tore through the smoky air.

“Whatever you’re doing, do it faster, girl!” Dronkhar growled.

Ilinnia took the axe in both hands. She mouthed sentences in foreign words, and a breeze began to blow past them. She held the axe aloft, spoke her own name, and finished with a word that sounded like a command.

The wind stopped and she staggered, nearly dropping the weapon. She looked at Dronkhar and weakly handed the axe back to him. “I think that’s it.”

The wooden wall sheltering them shuddered, and Ilinnia screamed. The two sohntar brandished their weapons as one of the metal statues tore the building apart.

Dronkhar wasted no time. He charged, aimed for the creature’s legs, and gave a mighty swing. A screech of metal tearing through metal sounded above the din. The Delver followed up Dronkhar’s blow with one from his hammer, and the statue’s leg bent back. It fell.

Swing after swing echoed through the street as axe met metal, chopping limbs and leaving gashes that oozed putrid liquid, all while the creature thrashed. Finally, the axe cleaved its neck and severed the head from the body.

Ilinnia screamed and Dronkhar whirled to see three statues charging toward them. One clutched a stone that looked like it might have been part of a house. It hurled the stone straight at them.

Dronkhar pushed Ilinnia to the side and dove away. The stone struck the remains of the smithy, and the structure crumpled. Thick planks of wood fell, and Ilinnia cried out with pain.

Shrugging off the debris, Dronkhar staggered to his feet. He lifted a jagged beam off of Ilinnia and stared with dismay. A half foot shard of wood jutted from her calf.

The creatures advanced on them.

“Take the girl and go,” the other sohntar shouted at Dronkhar. His face was wrenched in agony. The wall had fallen on his leg, crushing it.

“You won’t survive against them on your own!” Dronkhar yelled back.

“I know.” Groaning, he bent to pick up his long knife and threw it at the advancing statues. As one, they turned toward him. “Don’t waste this.”

Dronkhar hefted Ilinnia onto his shoulder and ran.